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India and Pakistan agree to ease visa restrictions

Visa restrictions will be lifted in a move to ease tensions and improve relations between India and Pakistan following a meeting by the two countries’ foreign ministers. Improvements in air links should be the next step.

ISLAMABAD- Pakistan and India will ease tough visa restrictions, an important step forward in improving relations between the nuclear armed neighbours, their foreign ministers said Saturday.

The agreement was the culmination of a visit by Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna to Pakistan as part of a tentative peace process that froze after Pakistani militants attacked the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008, killing 166 people. “A step-by-step approach is what will take the relationship forward,” said Krishna.

The new pact offers several different types of visa. Pakistanis visiting India have long grumbled about the restrictive visa regime for both tourists and businesses. Pakistani business travellers are restricted to particular cities, so visitors cannot travel from Delhi to the business hub of Gurgaon without permission.

Business people also have to report to an Indian police station in the evenings Pakistani trade officials complain. Indians face similar hassles when travelling into Pakistan.

Easing travel conditions between both countries should also be accompanied by an improvement in air links. Only Pakistan Airlines flies currently between both countries offering flights from Karachi to Mumbai and Delhi and from Lahore to Delhi. They are still no air connections between Delhi and Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. A previous agreement dating back to 2008 which foresaw to double air links was never implemented following the terrorist attack of 10 Pakistani gunmen in Mumbai in November 2008, killing more than 160 people.

The two countries have gone to war three times since Pakistan split from India in 1947. “We will not be held hostage to history,” said Pakistan’s foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar. In April, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari visited India, the first trip by a Pakistani head of state in seven years. Last year Pakistan promised India most-favoured nation trading status.

But potential flashpoints between the two nations remain. They include a long-running dispute over the mountainous province of Kashmir, currently divided between the two nations; Indian dams that Pakistanis say threaten their water supply and possible future attacks like those in Mumbai.